Last world champion: Jacques Villeneuve, Williams, 1997
Last Grand Prix winner: Jacques Villeneuve, Nurburgring, 1997
Last Grand Prix starter: Jacques Villeneuve, BMW, Hockenheimring, 2006
Last Grand Prix: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal, 2008
Canada is a new addition to the ‘lost nations’: Its Grand Prix has just been cancelled, and it had a former world champion until 2006. But will it ever be back?
Canada’s F1 history
Does any country have as fine a history of Formula 1 circuits as Canada? Undulating Mosport, picturesque Mont Tremblant, punishing Montreal – each challenging and unusual, and all now sadly missing from F1.
Formula 1’s visits to Canada began in 1967. Most of the early races were held at Mosport, near Lake Ontario, but its crests and sweeps were last seen in 1977 after which growing safety concerns forced it off the calendar. It earned a place in F1 history for being the first venue where a safety car was used during a Grand Prix – it proved a total shambles, and it two decades passed before the practice became commonplace.
Mosport’s replacement was a twisty circuit on a man-made island near Montreal. The first F1 visitors in 1978 derided its ‘Mickey Mouse’ layout. But as the configuration was tweaked (and other venues became increasingly bland) the Montreal circuit gained a reputation for punishing cars and drivers alike.
That first race was won by Gilles Villeneuve who assumed instant hero status in his home country. But even after Villeneuve’s untimely death in 1982 (whereupon the circuit was named after him) and despite no other Canadian drivers taking his place in the sport, the popularity of F1 in Canada endured. The race remained on the calendar every year, except in 1987, due to a row over sponsorship.
Ten years later Canada finally produced a world champion. Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles, arrived in F1 with the CART championship and an Indy 500 win under his belt, and came close to winning the world championship in his first season. He won the title in 1997, but he never emulated his father in winning his home Grand Prix. A switch to the ill-fated BAR project in 1999 was the ruining of Villeneuve’s career, which he failed to revive in later appearances for Renault and BMW.
He was unceremoniously dumped by BMW halfway through 2006 in favour of Robert Kubica. Bernie Ecclestone did much the same to the Canadian Grand Prix promoters at the end of 2008, claiming they hadn’t been paying their bills. That may have been the case, but F1 has deprived itself of another popular venue and passionate crowd at a time when most tracks are struggling to fill the grandstands at Grands Prix.
Canada’s F1 future
Robert Wickens is a man to watch in Formula Two this year. Wickens has driven for the Canadian A1 Grand Prix team and blown hot and cold on occasions: winning in fine style at Durban one day; causing a crash by driving against the flow of traffic the next.
But he has the all-important backing of Red Bull, and a strong showing in WSR this year could put him on the path to F1.
Canadian F1 driver biographies
Formula 1′s lost nations
Images (C) www.mclaren.com, Red Bull / GEPA